(Reposted from: Forbes.com, July 2, 2020)
By David J. Smith
Increasingly, I’m being asked by students and clients how they can apply their personal values to a career that brings meaning and advances social change, but also provides security, a stable income and a good future.
With myriad challenges facing American and global society, those who feel the pull to contribute to improving social and political conditions are searching for ways to play a constructive role. For many, this might involve carving out time after work to lend a hand, be it making face masks at home or attending a rally or protest. Taking on a cause is a highly personal decision. It depends on a person’s individual values, talents, abilities, time and energy. The convergence of social need and individual opportunity can allow us to do something that brings us meaning in our lives and to “walk our talk,” so to speak.
Personal circumstances are the most influential factor in deciding on a job, gig, or career. Often, we don’t have the luxury to pick and choose what we do: rent or a car payment is due; college loans must be paid, and food must be put on the table. We can’t minimize the reality that paid work sustains our lives and our families.
But it is important to recognize that the need to make social change and the necessity of work need not be mutually exclusive. Regardless of the work we are doing, we can do it in a way that aligns with our values and advances the causes we are committed to. In every job and career, there is space to do the right thing, often taking small yet meaningful steps to improve someone else’s life. Sometimes it’s about how we go about what we do. If we are generous, kind, fair and honest in our approach, we are making the world a better place.
For those who want to go further and combine their social values with their work in a specific cause or effort, I would ask you to consider the following:
Check your back yard first.
In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy reflects, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” If it’s your heart’s desire to change the world, you might start with your own community. Often the “big problems” facing the world get our attention and interest. This can lead to frustration: If I want to eradicate poverty in the developing world, how do I start? I understand this, but I would suggest that poverty is also a local issue and something your own community might face. Start at home. The question then becomes: What work in my community needs attention? Could I work for a social services agency or not-for-profit that is working on poverty issues?
Consider what you can do in your current role.
Sometimes there is this incorrect belief that only jobs that are by design working to fix societal problems are focused on social change. I would argue that most anyone can find space in their own work to advance important social goals. A retail professional can urge their employer to offer products that align with environmental values. Someone who works in a service field — a hair stylist, for instance — can donate a portion of their earnings to specific causes. An accountant can devote volunteer time to support the needs of a not-for-profit. An IT professional can offer their expertise gratis to social justice groups trying to advance justice reform.
Know how to transition from volunteer to paid staff.
Most movements start with volunteers. Those organizing a rally or protest sometimes come together spontaneously. But more often, there is a planning group of people of like minds and hearts. As this effort grows, there might be the need to sustain the effort with staff who are paid. This will require getting financial support through donations, fundraising or grants. Once funding is obtained, then professional staff can be hired. As a volunteer, your efforts might lead to paid employment and allow you to continue doing the work you are passionate about.
Research, reach out and plan.
If you come to the conclusion that your goal is a career that allows you to apply your convictions, you will need to spend time researching and planning. Not all social causes easily allow for paid work, but many do. You need to consider which ones can support a career. In fields such as legal advocacy, community development, policy change and political lobbying, pathways are clearer and more defined. A job might require a specific college degree and a requirement to volunteer or intern first. Often through a field of study or training, you learn the steps you should take. This always involves talking with professionals doing the work, sometimes by way of informational interviews. Through this process, you might find someone who will mentor you. Having a game plan is important: Making connections, training or education, and volunteer experience will likely be part of it.
We are at a moment in society where we need to be “all in” to work on important issues of social change. Issues related to public health, community safety, social justice, and economic equality are pressing. Use your career as a vehicle for the change that is important to you.